How traffickers deceive Nigerian girls into becoming commercial sex workers abroad
Commercial sex has been an age-long vice plaguing the world, but it is assuming a dangerous dimension in Nigeria in recent times where over 1.4 million women are reportedly being deceived and trafficked yearly to different parts of the world where they end up becoming commercial sex workers, a status that is generally considered as highly immoral. CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes that while the government at different levels in the country tries to evacuate the victims in a bid to help them to become dignified and responsible citizens, more young girls are falling prey to the deceits of the traffickers who promise mouthwatering jobs across the national borders.
By stroke of luck, Joy Akwansa escaped being trafficked to Dubai where she would have been forced or compelled to indulge in commercial sex last year. She was one of some girls marked for sexual enslavement in the United Arab Emirates, but God intervened in her case, unfortunately others were successfully trafficked.
Akwansa, who hails from Uli in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, was attending a musical evangelism event at 22 Road FESTAC, Lagos when she received a call from an auntie that set her mind on a path to Dubai in search of greener pasture.
Unknowing to her, the call that came from a lady she was squatting with at 26, Alebiosu Street, Satellite Town, towards the ‘Big Tree’, Mary Anni, who she referred to as auntie, was premeditated for her being trafficked to Dubai to engage in commercial sex for the financial gain of the traffickers.
Unexpectedly, Anni called Akwansa in May 2022 and asked if she would be interested in working abroad, specifically to mange a business for an undisclosed person. Akwansa responded in the affirmative with a condition: ‘As long as it’s genuine and not illegal.’ Anni quickly told her that she would not allow her (Akwansa) to go for anything illegitimate after which she sent her a cell phone number of one Mr. Udochukwu Peacemaker, who turned out to be a human trafficker from Arochukwu in Imo State.
“We started chatting online and he asked me to send him my pictures so that he could send to his partners in Dubai, which I did. He eventually said his partners liked me and would want me to come over. After this, he sent me N11, 000 to come and meet him in Asaba, Delta State, but the money didn’t drop in my account,” Akwansa said.
According to Akwansa, Udochukwu sent another money directly to the Young Shall Grow Transport Services in Lagos, and a ticket was given to her with which she boarded a night bus to Asaba, and was lodged in one Sandy Gold Hotel in the town.
“I was meeting him for the first time. While we were at the hotel, he called his partners in Dubai on a video call and they asked me some questions. But before he called them, he told me to answer yes if they ask me whether I knew what I was coming to do. When they asked me, Udochukwu didn’t allow me to answer before saying yes.
“They said they would take care of my toiletries until I finish remitting what they would spend to bring me to Dubai. They said thereafter, I could bring someone that would serve me as well. From there, I started having the feeling that all was not well, but I played along to get off their hooks.
“From there, he took me for an international passport at the Immigrations Office in Akwa, the Anambra State capital. When we got there, there was no passport, then we moved to Enugu State, and it was the same story. We went to Ebonyi State but they couldn’t capture me because of poor networks. We went back to Awka again. He was so desperate for me to travel and it was a pointer to me.
“When we got to Awka, I saw other girls, about 15 of them on the same matter. Then, I asked one of their computer operators what the girls were doing there, he told me that they were going for prostitution but mine was a different case. He said that I was going to work in a company,” Akwansa recalled.
At this point, Udochukwu came and asked her to accompany him to an undisclosed destination after taking a photograph of her. Akwansa ended up in a shrine at Aguleri to swear an oath that she wouldn’t run away on getting to Dubai until she finished paying back the money which Udochukwu said was $30, 000, a whopping N21 million.
She further recounted her experience: “I was scared at the sight of the shrine but he said there was nothing to be scared about as the oath was only for me to complete his money without running away. I saw both live animals and live blood there and they gave me a Kolanut to eat in agreement.
“I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t run away because I wouldn’t want to be hurt as I didn’t know anywhere there. I ate the kolanut and we went back to Awka, where he wanted to force me to sleep with him at night but I refused. He said he wanted to initiate me to illuminati so that I could make money.
“He made some fake incantations and said before the incantation would make way for me, he has to insert his manhood into my private part but I refused. He tried forcing himself on me but I resisted him. In the morning, we left for Ebonyi again for the passport and they told us there was no network but he paid for express service for the passport. We stayed till evening and they asked us to come back the next morning.
“It was there I met one Obinna (Don Ken) and I inquired from others, they said I shouldn’t go with them that it was prostitution that I was going into. It became clear to me at that point. We lodged in a hotel in Ebonyi and again, he tried forcing himself on me, I struggled with him and bite his shoulder before he let go of me.”
Akwansa recalled that when they went back to Enugu, they stayed in Udochukwu friend’s house instead of hotel. It was there Akwansa told the wife of Udochuwu’s friend that she wanted to use POS. By then, she had thrown her small bag out of the house. That was how she escaped afterwards to Lagos.
While she was in transit, Don Ken called and told her to go to the Holy Ghost Park in Enugu that he would send a girl to bring her to his house, not knowing that Akwansa was headed for Lagos already. She got to Lagos and never mentioned her experience to her ‘auntie’ for fear of being recaptured.
“When Udochukwu knew I had gone back, he called and started threatening me. He said if I didn’t return the money he spent on me, he was going to make my life miserable. He sent a video where he was making an incantation with my picture in a shrine. I forwarded it to my spiritual father, Rev Victor Obiora, who told me not to worry and led me to prayers for three days.
“While I was fasting and praying, Udochukwu was still threatening me. He opened up that he trafficks for a living. After that, they devised another means to get me. Don Ken started chatting me as a friend and said I should come back to the East and reverse the curse Udochukwu placed on me.
“I thought he was a good person. He told me that he went to his spiritualist to know what Udochukwu planned for me. And he said he projected an accident for me in such a way that I would be crushed on the road from nowhere. He eventually came to my work place at the 2nd Avenue, FESTAC. He said if I wanted to travel abroad, he would help me.
“After two weeks, he called and asked if I would like to settle down with him. At this point, I realised that they were the same but came in another way. I told him never to call me again. Notwithstanding, in November 2022, Udochukwu sent me another chat, threatening fire and brimstones if I didn’t return his money. He claimed that he spent N160, 000 on me.”
This is one of the sad experiences many young Nigerian girls go through before travelling outside the country in search of what they perceive as better life.
At least 700, 000 persons, majorly women and children, are trafficked within or across international borders yearly. Trafficking in persons is a derived demand as economists would say, and it’s increasingly perpetrated by organised criminal enterprises. Such trafficking is the fastest growing source of profits for the business worldwide. Profits from the industry contribute to the expansion of the enterprise in the country.
The Guardian learnt that the illegal trafficking of people for exploitation or commercial gain is worth $150 billion globally. Two thirds of this figure, $99 billion, is generated from commercial sexual exploitation, while another $51 billion results from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reveals that the average woman trafficked for forced sexual servitude generates $100, 000 in annual profit anywhere (from 100per cent to 1,000per cent return on investment). According to the United Nations, the smuggling route from East, North and West Africa to Europe alone generates $150 million profits yearly and $35 billion is generated globally.
Regrettably, human trafficking is often aided by official corruption in the countries of origin, transit, and destination, thereby threatening the rule of law. For instance, approximately, 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States each year as reports have shown. And many of these persons are trafficked into the international sex trade, often by force, fraud, or coercion. According to a 2016 UNESCO report, poverty is the major reason women and children are vulnerable to being trafficked. Another report in 2018, by the Global Slavery Index, ranked Nigeria 32 out of 167 countries where persons are trafficked.
“The sex industry has rapidly expanded over the past decades. It involves sexual exploitation of persons, predominantly women and girls involving in prostitution-related activities including prostitution itself, pornography, sex tourism, and strip dancing among other commercial sexual services,” a human rights activist, Sonnie Ekwowusi said.
The Guardian’s investigations revealed that low status of women in many parts of the world has contributed to the burgeoning of the trafficking industry in Nigeria. The act is, however, not limited to the sex industry, but also the growing transnational crimes, including forced labour, and involves significant violations of labour, public health, and human rights standards worldwide.
Sex trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, is defined as the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronising, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.
“Traffickers primarily target women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, lack of access to education, chronic unemployment, discrimination, and the lack of economic opportunities in their countries of origin,” Ekwowusi added.
As part of the antics and overtures of the traffickers, the victims are lured into their networks by false promises of decent working conditions with relatively good pay such as nannies, maids, dancers, factory workers, restaurant workers, sales clerks, or models, only to be forced into prostitution and remittance made to the sponsors.
It was learnt that some members of the syndicates are positioned at the destination countries and make demands of what type of girls they want. The pictures of potential victims are sent to them and choices are made. Upon this, the travel documents of those selected would be processed and provided to the person to be trafficked through a member of the syndicate in the immigration agency.
After getting these documents and travel made, the victims would have to start remitting certain amount of money to cover what the traffickers spent on the trip to the ‘slave’ land. The victims work at neck-breaking pace to offset whatever the imposed debt to regain their freedom.
Some lucky ones manage to regain their freedom while unlucky others contract one form of killer disease or the other in the course of prostituting and die afterwards. Most times, families of the victims are not aware of the death of their relatives, hoping to reunite with their daughters who would have been buried or thrown into the sea.
An 18-year old school-leaver, a daughter of a bricklayer, who lived in Benin City, Edo State capital, Philomena Moses, was a direct victim of sex trafficking in Libya. She has turned an activist to save other potential victims.
Philomena is the first of four children of his parents. She stopped going to school after her senior secondary school education for lack of money. But one Mrs. Hope met her and sold the idea of travelling to Italy to Philomena, which sounded good to her.
She was promised a decent job in Italy to take care of her siblings and other family members. The woman then connected her to another woman, named Bright who, till now, stays in Libya. Bright directed Philomena to a park in Auchi, Edo State where she boarded a bus going to Kano. From Kano, a man who got them on board another bus received her and other girls.
According to Philomena, the bus travelled on the road for three weeks and when they eventually got to Libya, they were taken to a ghetto in Sabratah in the city where they spent over a month. During their stay there, they had no water to drink and some of the girls died.
“The traffickers who were to take us across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy brought all sorts of men to the camp to have sex with us. They told us that we were hustlers and we would have to cross the sea into Italy and Spain when the police patrol was minimal.
“After about two months, soldiers came and raided the place and we were arrested and taken to the deportation camp in Tripoli. But there were several other hideouts in Sabratah where traffickers, waiting to cross the Mediterranean Sea for prostitutions, are keeping girls. I didn’t know I was going for prostitution until it became obvious to us.
“It was a bad experience, it’s not what any reasonable person would like to be part of. I saw young girls die and forgotten. We were sexually dealt with. Our parents who give out their children or encourage them to follow anybody that they do not know their pedigree should stop. This sex trafficking also happens within this country. All that glitters is not gold,” Philomena said.
Similarly, when Florence Abu, a hair stylist, left the shores of Nigeria recently in a planned journey to Russia, she thought she was moving closer to greener pastures. She thought the trip would be the key to unlocking a better life she had so desired for herself and family but the event took another twist that smashed her hopes.
Abu, an indigene of Delta State, soon realised that she had been deceived to work as a prostitute in Russia. She alleged that she was lured to travel abroad by one Endurance Ehioze, an assistant pastor (fake) with one Ambassadors Ministries, her local church in Edo State, who claimed that he saw a vision of her prospering outside the shores of Nigeria.
“This is a pointer that traffickers are everywhere, in the government, churches, mosques, anywhere you can think of, hence there is the need to be discreet in dealing with anybody. There are many fake pastors out there deceiving gullible worshippers. The young girls and boys should be careful with these wolves in sheep clothing,” said an elder, Joseph Ovie.
Before she left for Russia, Ehioze allegedly told Abu to give his mother, Vivian Ehioze, her pubic hair and fingernails, which would be used for a fetish oath to ensure she does not abscond on getting to Russia without remitting money to him.
Not knowing what she was going to do, after everything, she was told she would remit $46, 000 when she would have started working to regain her freedom from the people that sent her abroad.
“I first of all refused the offer but the fake pastor told me that I don’t have a choice because God showed him in a revelation that my destiny is not in Nigeria, that my destiny is outside the country. He said for me to achieve that aim, I need to leave the country so I can earn better money help my family, take them away from poverty and for me to also have a better stay,” Abu said.
Hearing this, she wondered how she was going to do it without having money on her, but Ehioze told her that they were going to provide money, the only thing required of her was to get her international passport ready.
On providing her pubic and armpit hairs, and finger nails, Ehioze told Abu that it was the only way to guarantee her commitment to the deal, and not having a choice, she agreed by giving his (Ehioze’s) mother hair from her head, armpit and pubic part as well as the fingernails.
“That was how I left. I gave them to Ehioze’s mother and the mother of the person I was going to meet in Russia. They told me that after my payment, I can decide to do my hairdressing work, do my dancing or my singing, that I can go ahead with that but for now, the only thing I can do is to see how other girls are hustling on the streets. They said prostitution fetches money faster than hairdressing as white always want African ladies.
“They said that’s how I was going to sell my body as a prostitute to pay her money until I finish paying the $46,000. She warned that if I try to prove smart, I would be killed. I wasn’t told of this from the beginning. When they were saying these, it didn’t make sense to me until I got there.”
Abu said she went through hell before she eventually contracted a disease that defied all treatments and she was brought back to die in Nigeria, but that was her saving grace.
“My life was like 24 hours. Sometimes I went for work for a week. I’d go to work and have bad clients; sometimes I would be chased out of the house with a gun. In some cases, I’d run out of the house naked in the broad daylight, running for my life.
“When I told my madam what I was going through, she would say it wasn’t her business, that her business was to see her money. She would tell me to find a place and wear my cloth and start going to another place. This happened countless times.
“I went to work (prostitution) one day and they threw me down from a staircase. I broke my hand. I was at home for one month, and my madam said she won’t be the one feeding me so I should go to work that same broken hand until I finish paying her money,” she said.
Abu was repatriated to Nigeria after she came down with an illness that defied treatment.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are about 1.4 million victims of human trafficking in Nigeria. IOM Chief of Mission in Nigeria, Franz Celestine, said the number of people being trafficked in the country and across the globe was on the rise and Nigeria being a country of origin, transit and destination, has a high number of victims of human trafficking, who have been subjected to some very inhumane treatments.
Celestine identified the demand for cheap labour and commercial sex as the major drivers for trafficking rings across borders and within countries that are taking advantage of the economic, social and political vulnerabilities to exploit their victims.
He called on the stakeholders to look into the plight of millions of children, women and men suffering from human trafficking and gross human rights abuses with the aim of giving a voice to the victims and survivors in the society to make them powerful agents of change.
“In 2018, the Walk Free Foundation estimated that almost 1.4 million individuals were living in modern slavery in Nigeria. Research also shows that two-thirds of Nigerian victims of trafficking are victims of domestic human trafficking. Criminals of such a highly profitable business model have devised ways to hide their traces and increase gains,” he quipped.
The World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 2022 themed ‘Victims’ Voices Lead the Way’ highlights the importance of listening to and learning from survivors of human trafficking. Sadly, often unheard, victims’ and survivors’ voices are key to developing and implementing strategies, policies, and measures to prosecute perpetrators. In worst cases, they face re-victimisation and punishment for seeking help against the crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers.”
IOM is concerned about the severity and dimension of the issue. We call upon our partners to put victims and survivors at the centre of our collective responses, learning from their stories and gaining inspiration from their courage and resilience.
The Guardian learnt that before the girls depart the country, they are usually taken to one shrine or the other where they are made to swear an oath of loyalty and commitment to repaying whatever amount that is claimed to have been spent on them and their travel abroad by their masters. This is where the sponsors make their profits.
Some of them sometimes suffer frame up and accused of stealing their masters’ money or valuables and made to swear by all manner of things at shrines to prove their innocence. This is often done against their wish and beliefs, which is another violation of their fundamental human rights as contained in Chapter II and IV of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Under the law, it is unlawful to force someone to swear an oath to prove his or her innocence over an allegation of a wrongdoing. It is regarded as trial by ordeal in the Nigerian law.
According to the Principal Partner. Lawrence Ndukwe and Co., Barrister Emeka Ndukwe, trial by ordeal is an ancient judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined by subjecting them to a painful, or at least an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience.
He noted that Section 207 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria prohibits trial by the ordeal: “ (1) The trial by ordeal of sasswood, esere bean, or the poison, boiling oil, fire, immersion in water or exposure to the attacks of crocodiles or other wild animals, or by any ordeal which is likely to result in the death of or bodily injury to any party to the proceeding, is unlawful.
“(2) The President or, as the case may be, the governor of a state may by order prohibit the worship or invocation of any juju which may appear to him to involve or tend towards the commission of any crime or breach of peace, or to the spread of any infectious or contagious disease.”
According to him, Section 208 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act says: “Any person who directs or controls or presides at any trial by ordeal which is unlawful, is guilty of a felony and is liable, when the trial which such person directs, controls or presides over results in the death of any party to the proceeding, to the punishment of death and every other case, to imprisonment for 10 years.”
Section 209 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act states: “Any person who (a) is present at or takes part in any trial by ordeal which is unlawful; or (b) makes, sells or assists or takes part in making or selling, or has in his possession for sale or use any poison or thing which is intended to be used for the purpose of any trial by ordeal, which is unlawful, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”
Reacting to these, the National Coordinator, Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Immigration, Development and Reintegration (IYAMIDR), Solomon Okoduwa said all those implicated in Abu’s trafficking were being prosecuted. It was learnt that Ehioze and his mother were arrested following a tip-off by IYAMIDR, which is based in Edo State. They are being tried for human trafficking-related charges at the Edo State High Court.
On how to tackle the menace, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said human trafficking is a trans-national organised crime of extraordinary magnitude that requires deliberate collaboration among state and non-state actors, including development partners, to stamp it out in the country.
“As we know, this is a challenge. Empirical evidence has shown that this is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with criminals exploiting their victims over and over. For years, the issues of human trafficking have plagued the country smearing Nigeria as an origin, transit and destination country. To prevent it, we need to address poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of equal opportunity which means investing in people, especially the young disadvantaged.”
The Director General, National Agency For Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP), Dr. Fatima Waziri-Azi, said the President Muhammadu Buhari administration would continue to tackle human trafficking through strict implementation of her strategic thrusts and ensuring that traffickers are effectively prosecuted.
She said as part of the efforts to address the scourge, the agency had taken steps in its partnership base with collaboration with Facebook to expose, sensitise and swiftly tackle any emerging incidence of human trafficking online.
“Now, due to increase in the state and interstate trafficking, buying and selling of children and cryptic pregnancies, NAPTIP has concluded partnership with Facebook and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, to set up Amber Alert Nigeria where Facebook sends alerts to targeted Facebook community to help find missing children in Nigeria on real time.”
She noted that between October and December 2021, NAPTIP signed bilateral agreements with Republic of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso as well as a memorandum of understanding with Republic of Niger to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
“We are scheduled to sign another bilateral agreement with Gambia and we are finalising with South Africa. These partnerships are in support of Nigeria’s effort in preventing human trafficking for sex and others.”
However, the General Overseer, Vision of God Bible Church, FESTAC, Rev Victor Obiora, who led Akwansa in special prayers when her life was threatened for escaping the plot of traffickers, advised young people to be careful with promises of good jobs abroad being made to them. He urged them to exploit the opportunities that exist in Nigeria rather than going for odd jobs abroad that could put their lives in jeopardy.